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posted: 1/3/2012 5:00 AM

Isolationism, redux

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The blogger Andrew Sullivan, typing faster than he could think, endorsed Ron Paul for the Republican presidential nomination. (He took it back, but we'll get to that later.) Sullivan is Britain-born, Oxford-taught and, like so many from that sceptered isle, gifted in print and speech. Still, he somehow did not realize that if someone like Paul had been president in the 1940s, his homeland might have succumbed to Nazi Germany while America, maddeningly isolationist, sat out the war. No doubt, curriculum changes would have been made at Oxford.

Paul opposes just about all international treaties and organizations. He would have the United States pull out of the United Nations and NATO. He would do away with foreign aid, abolish the CIA and essentially turn his back on the rest of the world. This is pretty much what used to be called isolationism, and it allowed Hitler to presume, quite correctly as it turned out, that America would not interfere with his plans to conquer Europe, Britain included. It took Germany's declaration of war on the United States, not the other way around, to get Uncle Sam involved.

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The isolationism of the 1930s and early '40s has come roaring back -- in the person of Paul, I am tempted to write, but that is not exactly the case. The old isolationism was deeply conservative, both socially and economically, and its leaders -- Sen. William Borah, R-Idaho, for instance -- would never have advocated the decriminalization of recreational drugs. Paul does because he is a libertarian. It is this ideology coupled with his staunch anti-war pose that attracts so many young people and, when you take another look, some not-so-young people as well. Sullivan is/was one of them, but others on both the left and the right have praised Paul on this score, as if his anti-war position can be extracted from his general nuttiness to make a rational candidate. No such luck.

Now some of these people -- notably Sullivan -- have backed off. Paul's old newsletters have (once again) surfaced, and their smarmy racism is downright repellent. Paul said he did not write the stuff, and maybe that's the case. But there's more than one noxious newsletter and his name is on them all. Either he never read his stuff or he did and didn't wince or he had people working for him who thought a little racism would please the boss. None of those explanations flatters him.

Just as troubling, though, is what was known about Paul all along -- and that is a foreign policy, if it can be called that, drained of morality. His total indifference to what happens overseas is chilling and reminiscent of the old isolationism, best articulated in Des Moines -- a world capital this election season -- by Charles Lindbergh back in 1941. In that speech, Lindbergh identified three groups that wanted to take America to war against Germany: the Brits, the Jews and the Roosevelt administration. They all had their reasons, he acknowledged, but, "We cannot allow the natural passions and prejudices of other peoples to lead our country to destruction." I can almost hear these very words coming out of the mouth of Paul.

America is weary of war, especially weary of those, in retrospect, that had no real purpose -- the one in Iraq, above all. The country is weary as well of politicians, most of them conservatives, who will not even debate the worth of such wars. (Not a single question about whether the Iraq War was worth about 4,500 American lives was posed in the last GOP debate -- and the debate was held the very day the last of the troops left that country.)

Yet America remains a mighty nation, capable of doing good in the world. That's far different from expanding an empire or making the world safe for McDonald's. The intervention in Libya, a NATO operation but an American enterprise, succeeded. So did the ones in Bosnia and Kosovo. The Libyan bombings will not bring democracy to that country, but they knocked out Moammar Gadhafi and that ain't a bad day's work.

Paul opposed that as he would oppose all military interventions -- as he would have opposed the Civil Rights Act, he's said. He cannot for the life of him summon government's authority or military might to have the right thing done. Still, the man himself is immaterial. His message, though, is a different matter. It has struck a chord and others, more polished and with better-fitting shirts, will pick it up. Lucky Lindy flies again.

2012, Washington Post Writers Group

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